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October 27

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Review: Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran Xue

by Ann-Katrina

Sky Burial Cover

Back Cover of Sky Burial

As a young girl in China Xinran heard a rumour about a soldier in Tibet who had been brutally fed to the vultures in a ritural known as a sky burial: the tale frightened and fascinated her. Several decades later Xinran met Shu Wen, a Chinese woman who had spent years searching for her missing husband Kejun, after he disappeared in Tibet; her extraordinary life story would unravel the legend of the sky burial. For thirty years she was lost in the wild and alien landscape of Tibet, in the vast and silent plateaux and the magisterial mountain ranges, living with communities of nomads, moving with the seasons and struggling to survive.

In this haunting book, Xinran recreates Shu Wen’s remarkable journey in a grand story of love, loss, loyalty and survival. Moving, shocking and finally enriching, Sky Burial paints a unique portrait of a woman and a land, both at the mercy of fate and politics.

Three Quick Points About Sky Burial

  • Point 1: There is a 99% chance that you will need a box of tissues nearby.
  • Point 2: You will almost certainly be left wondering whether or not such profound and enduring love can even exist in our generation.
  • Point 3: The story of Shu Wen will likely haunt you long after you’ve read the final sentence.

Full Review of Sky Burial

Before reading the full review, please note that there may be some spoilers. I tried to keep it vague enough not to spoil the entire story, but be warned. If you’d rather not take any chances, skip the synopsis and go straight to the final thoughts.

Sky Burial Synopsis

Sky Burial is a sweeping memoir of mythical love and devotion. But it’s not just a love story, it is a story about loss and life in general. It came about when Xinran overheard a brief discussion about a barbaric act called a Sky Burial. At the time (5 years old), she didn’t know what it meant, but years later, she would when she met with a woman named Shu Wen. Sky Burial is Wen’s story.

Kejun and Wen, a young man and woman who met in medical school and became close. During medical school, Kejun decided that he should join the military to serve his country. For two years, Wen heard no word from him, but when he came home to study Tibetan and Tibetan medicine, it allowed them two years for their relationship to grow and their love to blossom. Finally they decided it was time to marry.

Three weeks after getting married, Kejun was called away again. Unfortunately, the news Wen received was not good: the love of her life was dead. Based on what Kejun had told her before he left and the military’s inability to supply her with concrete answers, Wen decided it simply was not possible that her Kejun was dead. With determination to bring her husband home, she decided she would go to Tibet and find him herself.

Wen signed up for the military, despite the objections she was met with, even from a few military officials. Since they military was in need of trained medical professionals, they pushed her through, even skipping basic field training and shipped her off to Tibet.

When in Tibet, Wen ends up saving the life of a once wealthy Tibetan woman named Zhuoma. This woman would later play a great role in Wen’s life when the two become separated from the military unit. After explaining her story of Kejun and why she’s in Tibet, Wen learns that Zhuoma shares a similar story of lost love and the two agree to help each other find their respective loves.

On this epic journey spanning thirty years, Shu Wen meets a Tibetan family who takes her in and becomes a nomad herself while developing a tight bond with them, experiences even more loss, learns the meaning of a sky burial, and learns the true fate of her lost Kejun.

Final Thoughts On Sky Burial

I read this book on a plane–mistake. Passengers in nearby seats kept stealing furtive glances at my tear streaked face. Even now, when I revisit Shu Wen’s story, I find myself beating back the tears. In a word, this book is powerful.

Shu Wen’s story is incredibly moving and her strength (emotional and otherwise) is staggering. While following the story, I couldn’t help feeling that there was some greater influences at work placing the right people where they needed to be in order for Wen to adapt, grow, and mature on her quest. We were also able to glimpse into the nomadic Tibetan way of life, some of their customs, and beliefs.

Although I read the translated UK version of the book (and since I cannot read Chinese, nor do I have the American translation, I am not able to compare them), the story was eloquently told. The language was poignant, the settings well-painted, and the subtle emotions haunting.

The only discourse I had with the book was the political discussion which came up between Wen and a small group of Chinese at a Dharmaraja festival. For those not well versed on the politics between Tibet and China of that time, it becomes confusing. Of course, the discussion is mainly just speculation and wild conjecture.

Also, occasionally Xinran injects a few pages of notes or asides between chapters to fill in gaps or explain a break in the interview or introduce some additional information about Shu Wen. This helps remind the reader that we’re reading a memoir based on an interview. However, it can bring the reader tumbling back to earth after floating up into Shu Wen’s story. It’s a double-edged sword that some may dislike.

When I finished reading I, like Xinran, was still filled with questions for Shu Wen. My mind still has trouble wrapping around the love and strength she possessed and the lessons she was kind enough to share with anyone willing to listen. This is one of the few books I will likely re-read well into the future.

Avoid reading it with a critical historical eye. Instead, read it for what it is: one person’s story of love and loss.

Rating: Worth every penny (?)

Get Sky Burial at

Comments on Review: Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran Xue

  1. # Brie wrote on October 27, 2008 at 3:15 pm:

    This sounds really moving. I usually steer away from books with tragic love stories, I just don’t have the heart for them, but I might give this one a go. Thanks for the review!

  2. # Ann-Kat wrote on October 27, 2008 at 11:39 pm:

    It’s difficult to really label this a tragic love story, although it does entail a great deal of tragedy. What really lingered for me was the actual love, the togetherness, the lessons, the bonds and the growth experienced by Shu Wen. And even Kejun’s sacrifice was incredibly moving.

    Glad you liked the review and if you do give it a go, I hope you enjoy the book too.

  3. # Jace wrote on October 28, 2008 at 2:36 pm:

    Great review! I can tell how profoundly it touched you. Isn’t it wonderful when you find a story that you can connect with on such a deep level? :-)

  4. # Ann-Kat wrote on October 29, 2008 at 6:51 am:

    Thank you, Jace. Finding that story you can connect with is definitely wonderful, a rare gemstone indeed. Plus, it also helps when the story is well-written and entertaining as well. (Amid the tears, I also found myself smiling at some passages.)

  5. # Susan wrote on November 4, 2008 at 8:30 am:

    I loved it! I have suggested it to my book club and we are meeting tonight to discuss it. I can’t wait to see if they were moved the way I was.

  6. # 2008 in Books, or the Ten Books I’m Glad I Read This Year - Today, I Read… wrote on December 31, 2008 at 5:33 pm:

    [...] Sky Burial by Xinran Xue (review) As a young girl in China Xinran heard a rumour about a soldier in Tibet who had been brutally fed [...]

  7. # Coral wrote on January 11, 2011 at 9:31 am:

    I just read this book last night, and it really touched me.
    I would highly recommend.
    My heart goes out to Wen.
    This book would make a touching, amazing movie.

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